For capability fans only

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 22, 2007

Here’s some information for fans of “the capability approach”: the “Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency”: released “a report”: that I co-wrote on how to conceptualise the quality of life for national policy purposes in affluent countries – we argue for a capability metric and are rather critical of the happiness metrics. I should add, though, that the proof is in the eating of the pudding, and we don’t have any funding to collect the necessary data that a capabilities-based index of the quality of life would require; our work remains at the conceptual level only. It may well turn out that we would need a very long questionnaire in order to collect all data, which in turn might jeopardize the viability of a capability-index of quality of life (since the non-response-rate would be higher). And there are more problems to solve before we would arrive at a capability index, certainly one as (relatively) easy to measure as either GDP per capita or happiness indicators. Anyway, if anyone has more money and more time and thinks this is a fun project to pursue, let me know what comes out of it.



Hidari 11.22.07 at 5:16 pm

I know a few social researchers who are trying (without much success) to try to create some kind of assessment of (Sen’s definition of) poverty based on the Capability approach. There are quite a number of conceptual problems here, and difficulties resulting from relating the theory to the pragmatic task of creating a questionnaire: I have an idea how to solve these problems but as usual no one will pay me to do it! I think you are wise to stay on the conceptual level for now.

As with Ingrid, if anyone knows anyone who has any money and would be interested in following up these issues please contact me!


Ingrid Robeyns 11.22.07 at 6:50 pm

I see now that my last sentence could be read as if I’m asking if anyone has funds – but that’s not what I wanted to say, — rather that I’m unlikely to continue working on this project of constructing a capability index (due to time and money constraints but perhaps more importantly that I increasingly have different research priorities), yet one never knows that someone else may want to take this further.


GreatZamfir 11.22.07 at 7:07 pm

I read the summary of our report, and it appears to be mainly about sustainability issues. Are these not two separate issues, measuring a capabilities based well-being of people on the one hand, and measuring the sustainability of this well-being on the other hand?


Ingrid Robeyns 11.22.07 at 7:47 pm

greatzamfir: yes, you’re absolutely right — we write in the report that these are two analytically disinct issues (not all people in the environmental business think so), and then we go on to say that we have nothing to say about sustainability but that we want to offer a conceptualisation of the quality of life.

perhaps the abstract is misleading, but most chapters of the report are on comparing resources, happiness and capability as the foundations for quality of life metrics, and arguing how such a capability metric could be further developed.


Jim 11.22.07 at 8:51 pm

Ingrid, you might find this paper from Emma Samman useful. I’ve not read it in full but it seems to address some of the same issues, and I was reading it just before I saw your post, so obviously it’s destiny or something.


Flapple 11.23.07 at 3:25 am

“…certainly one as (relatively) easy to measure as either GDP per capita or happiness indicators”.

I wouldn’t describe GDP easy to measure, a complex conceptual and organisation infrastructure needs to be in-place to measure GDP. Its just that we are used to it being there and seeing the simple output of one number.

This is not to disagree with the statement that there are lots of problems to solve to get to a capability indicator, its just that GDP is not “simple” becuase it is intrinsically simple, but rather that all those problems have been worked through and a robust system is now in place.


mcd 11.23.07 at 4:59 am

A few things this makes me think of:

A fruitful connection between Sen’s canonical list and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Is achieved functionings similar to the concept of achieved status?

Does the capability freedom idea join in the old distinction between equality of opportunity vs equality of condition? Perhaps on the side of equality of opportunity?

Do people in your model have any social obligation to enhance their capabilities?


Tracy W 11.23.07 at 11:35 am

I think I misunderstand something:

It would indeed be very strange to think that people would highly value, for example, their opportunities to play in the theatre (hence value that capability), while at the same not being able to imagine that their life quality would be enhanced by actually playing a role on stage.”

What does this mean? Is it really strange to think that? It seems reasonably logical. I would not like to live in a Puritan state that banned theatre, even if it banned nothing else. But I don’t want to play a role on stage, I have done, and I find the stage fright outweighs any pleasure.

Is the mere fact that I can imagine that my life quality would be enhanced really change your argument? But then, if we can’t imagine something, then what’s the likelihood of us thinking about it at all? Is it possible to both:
a) be able to think about the capability of doing something, and
b) be incapable of imagining our life quality being enhanced by doing it?

For example, I can imagine living in a 2-dimensional world. I can imagine my life quality being enhanced by living in a 2-d world (I don’t think it would be, but I can imagine it). I can imagine dancing across the milky way. I can imagine throwing myself on a grenade and grabbing a few micro-seconds of high quality life from the belief that I was saving other lives.

I have a feeling I am completely misunderstanding this paragraph somehow.


Tracy W 11.23.07 at 12:24 pm

A society which heavily subsidizes education, and in which adult education programs are well developed in particular, will strongly support people to generate a decent income.

Well, not necessarily. A society could heavily subsidise the wrong sort of education, a sort of education irrelevant to generating a decent income. Or indeed a sort of education that effectively stops people from generating a decent income. Bad teachers can cause their students to regress. Inputs are not the same as outputs. Especially in education.

Next, the input of disposable time can also be redistributed by the government in a number of
direct and indirect ways. …. The only point we wish to make is that the existence of these policies demonstrates that governments are perfectly capable of shaping the distribution of time and money between different demographic groups, if reasons for doing so exist.

Are they? If a government allows time-credits or what not, then assuming that the worker was doing something useful in the first place, that generally implies that someone else has to pick up their job. (In some situations of long-term work, a job make be able to be left undone for a while, I am only speaking of the normal situation). What happens if the people the government is redistributing the work to don’t want to do it? Or can’t do it?

For example: the domains of mobility and non-discrimination are not competing. Improved mobility can be achieved without jeopardizing the capability of non-discrimination and respect, since public inputs in these domains are hardly competing at the level of the government budget, and also because legislation which aims to rule out discrimination resembles a pure collective good.

I think you overestimate the capability of Governments. Can a Government really think equally well about “improved mobility” if it is also expected to form policy on “non-discrimination and respect”? Ministers only have 24 hours in the day, and they only have limited brain cells, just like everyone else. And of course no Government will only be thinking about “improved mobility” and “non-dsicrimination and respect”, instead they have about fifty million other things on their plate.


Tom Doyle 11.23.07 at 12:47 pm

“we argue for a capability metric and are rather critical of the happiness metrics”

Hodel, oh Hodel, have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome, he’s young, all right, he’s 62.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true? True.
I promise you’ll be happy, and even if you’re not,
there’s more to life than that, don’t ask me what!
“Matchmaker,” Fiddler on the Roof; Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein (1964)

(; )

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